Against All Odds, Part 1
This column first appeared on PoliceOne.com.
A few days after waking up from a four-week coma, Trooper Matthew Swartz swung out of his hospital bed, started to walk to the bathroom and fell flat on his ass. Sprawled on the floor buck naked that was the moment he realized he no longer had a lower left leg.
Almost two years later, the 34-year-old Swartz continues on a remarkable journey of self renewal through which he has pitted gut determination against formidable odds to reach a goal many thought impossible. He has become the first trooper in the 89-year history of the New York State Police to work what that agency terms full and strenuous duty on the road, despite an amputated limb.
Nationally, he's part of a small, but no doubt growing, band of cop amputees, perhaps 70-75 in all out of some 800,000 full-time law enforcement officers in the United States, according to his informal research. Most, like Swartz, have lost lower legs; a few, hands. But all, he's convinced, share a common struggle.
We take on our disabilities like we take on evil on the job, he says. When something bad happens, we crush it, we break it, we squash it and then we move on to the next dangerous or challenging thing. That's what cops do.
Before the Accident
At the time fate changed Matt Swartz's life, he was a veritable poster boy for American law enforcement. The son of two small-town New York police officers, he served as an Air National Guard security specialist in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Deployed to Panama, he was awarded an Air Force Achievement Medal after his keen observation skills and fast decision-making saved the life of a civilian heart attack victim. Back home, he worked as a deputy sheriff and in a series of small municipal departments before joining the state police in 1999. As a law officer, he's survived two shootings, one in a suicide-by-cop standoff, the other on a burglary-in-progress call.
Assigned to road patrol in a 12-trooper station in rural upstate near the Adirondacks, far from any prompt backup, he grew accustomed to operating as a self-reliant one-man army. In his spare time, he rose to the rank of captain as a volunteer firefighter and served on a wildland search-and-rescue squad.
Life was good, Swartz recalls. He and his wife, Alison, had no children, but two dogs and a horse kept them busy. They were in the process of building their dream house on a country spread near the tiny settlement of Meco, with Swartz doing much of the work himself.
Everyday Life Crashes to a Halt
After a sad weekend in November 2004, during which one of their dogs died, Swartz was driving his wife to work on a beautiful, cool and sunny fall Monday when their lives suddenly came crashing to a halt literally at 0734 hrs. Just a couple of miles from where they lived at the time, a 22-year-old male with a dismal driving record unexpectedly turned left in his purple Monte Carlo to cross their lane of highway into a rural driveway. Apparently, he hadn't looked to see them coming.
His car smashed into the driver side of Swartz s Dodge Ram Charger pickup, causing the truck to spin, flip and roll over four times. Alison survived with only minor cuts and bruises. My gift from God, Swartz says. So did the errant driver. But Swartz was hurled back through the rear window of the extended cab truck and thrown to the pavement with major injuries: three skull fractures, traumatic brain damage, severe arterial bleeding, a broken arm and elbow, a crushed left leg and more. He was bleeding out of his eyes, ears, nose and mouth.
Airlifted to a hospital (ironically from a chopper landing zone Swartz himself had set up on behalf of the state police), the young trooper was placed on critical-care life support, with a tracheotomy, gastric feeding tube, catheter and other life sustaining paraphernalia.
Swartz has no recollection of the collision or its immediate aftermath. His last memories of that general time period are of the death of their dog Pudgy, and burying her at their new house a day before the accident.
At the hospital, doctors placed Swartz in a medically induced coma to help his brain heal. Still near death, he slept through his birthday, and he wasn t cognizant when physicians discovered his broken lower-leg bone had shredded his tibial artery, causing potentially fatal internal hemorrhaging. They tried for more than two weeks to save the leg, but when gangrene set in they decided amputation was the only reasonable alternative.
With Swartz comatose, Alison alone bore the responsibility of consenting to the surgery. They chopped it off six inches below my knee, Swartz says.
Alison gently told him what had happened when he groggily regained consciousness early in December. But I wasn't able to retain any grasp of things then, he explains. Much of the time he couldn't remember even where or who he was. It wasn't until his abruptly aborted trip to the bathroom days later that he fully comprehended that part of the limb that had helped make him a high-school track star and a balls-to-the-wall peace officer was gone from his life forever.
But you're still you, Alison assured him. Which meant, he observes, I still had heart.
Whether he wanted to return to policing once he recovered from his amputation was never a question, Swartz says. He focused from the beginning on how. The obstacles could have easily cowed anyone with a less aggressive mindset.
First, he knew nothing about prostheses, including the core consideration of how to use one. Assuming he could master routine challenges such as learning to walk again, could he develop the special strength and agility to reliably use the artificial leg in winning fights and foot pursuits, or even just get in and out of a patrol car?
Little about his physical condition inspired hope. During nearly two months of hospitalization, his weight dropped from 165 to 109 lbs., and he grew so weak he couldn't open a water bottle. Because of his broken arm, he had difficulty properly supporting himself on a walker or on the handrails of a rehab treadmill. While his brain was still healing, he shook with palsy and couldn t blink his eyes. His strength equaled that of a man in his 70s, and the swollen stump of his leg hurt so much he couldn't conceive bearing down on it in a prosthetic socket.
Then there were the staggering costs. A prosthesis alone ran nearly $20,000, not to mention extensive therapy and mounting medical bills. In all, the tab would total about $700,000 (and is still growing). Because the collision occurred off duty, workers compensation was out. The driver who hit them had minimal insurance, and that's an overstatement, Swartz says. His personal health insurance was with a problematic HMO. They didn't want to pay for anything. Durable medical equipment (insurance jargon for a prosthesis)? You got crutches, what more do you need? Oh, you need extended rehabilitative therapy too? How is no for an answer?
In January 2005, a few weeks after he was discharged from the hospital, his state police bosses congratulated him on his approval for disability retirement. Swartz stubbornly rejected the idea. His heritage, he points out, is Italian and German. My mom says I have the temper of an Italian, but the German backs it up.
As his mind cleared and his determination deepened, he found himself becoming really in tune with military veterans coming home from Iraq as amputees. Some of them were actually able to rehabilitate and return to combat, he noted. If they could go back to work in a war zone, why couldn't he go back to being a state trooper? That thought helped him stay focused as he prayed for his future.
Remsberg's column is a PoliceOne.com exclusive, where it s sponsored by Blauer.